This is Part 3 in a 4-part series in which Video Volunteers is sharing what we’ve done over the last year, our experiences, and what we’ve learned. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In August, the Video Volunteers staff attended an amazing program called the Global Social Business Incubator at Santa Clara University, where we developed a new business plan focused on income from the mainstream media. Our idea is to have one rural reporter in each of India’s 645 districts, set up like a rural stringers network, to deliver a pipeline of high-quality, low-cost human interest content to television stations. The maintenance costs of such a network, once it’s set up, would be relatively low — about $300,000 a year for 645 rural correspondents, or about the cost of 20-30 television producers in Delhi. 

Ultimately, we feel that the recruitment, training and generation of impact will need to be supported by philanthropy, but that production and distribution should be taken care of by the market.

We made significant progress in 2011. In May, NewsX, the Indian network, broadcast our 13-part series called “Speak Out India.” We sold them eight stories a week, and they produced a show around it. It was the first time we know of where a mainstream news company has paid for content produced by people living at the so-called base of the pyramid, and the successful run of that show has given us a successful track record with the media. The problem was, they only paid us the stringer rate for the stories, so about 1,500 rupees ($30) when our costs of production are more like 8,000 rupees ($160).

Our next goal was to see if an Indian TV channel would sign a contract with us for a similar amount of content each week (about 30 minutes) at our fully loaded cost of production for a 3-minute story. Hence, Video Volunteers’ earned income goal for the end of this year was $100,000, or about 40% of our total budget. This would still be significantly lower than the costs of a TV station doing these stories themselves.

In the last three months, we’ve made two trips to Delhi and Mumbai to meet the TV channels, and the response has been very enlightening. So far, we’ve met about half of the top 20 English or Hindi news channels. They all like the content. They find our community correspondents full of energy, and feel that our flip cams are generating adequate quality.

The fact that India is in the throes of an anti-corruption movement is a really good thing for us, because we have lots of great corruption stories that they want. So far so good, in that they clearly are saying, “We’ll run this content.” This is a big step from a few years ago, where everyone we spoke to said we were crazy to think TV stations would run stuff produced by poor villagers. 

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Jessica Mayberry with tribal community media producers in Andhra Pradesh, India.

The Rural Newswire

As for the idea of a “rural newswire,” they also get the concept. One senior person at CNN IBN said, “It’s a well-known secret in Indian media that abysmal stringers are a huge problem.” The chief executive of CNN IBN has talked in media interviews (including when he’s been interviewed about Video Volunteers) about the “tyranny of distance,” and how the remote areas of the country are often prohibitively expensive to cover. Someone at a government channel even told us that our idea couldn’t work with the government channel “because all our stringers are political appointees!”

But despite all this, we’re not sure they’re ready to pay for quality. One producer at a news channel here who was really championing us internally said, “I’m pitching this as a high-quality stringers network. Everyone knows our stringers are awful, but the problem is they are OK with bad quality.”

Bottom line at the end of our first 10 TV station meetings: Stations will take our stuff for free. They would probably also pay us the stringer rate — but not necessarily the fully loaded cost. So now we’re working with one station that’s going to try to find a corporate sponsor, and will probably be the first mainstream media contract to materialize for us next year.

Online Distribution Helps

Thankfully, the Internet is a space where we can produce and publicize our content without depending on a broadcaster. We are currently publishing one video a day on our site, which is searchable by issue, region and community correspondent. The good news is that we’ve doubled our viewers over the last six months. The less good news is that the numbers are still low. We’re going to start tweaking our format to show the back story and the trials and tribulations of the community producers more.

We’ve set aside one day a week, Wednesday, to publish impact videos — this will have an impact on us in terms of fundraising! And we hope to start producing our own podcasts where we club together videos on a particular theme and have someone in our office as an anchor. We now have more than 450 edited 3-minute videos on every conceivable issue of human rights, poverty alleviation, and local culture. We’re sitting on a gold mine of content, and now the fun starts of repackaging it and seeing what themes emerge and getting others to comment on the content.

We’re confident this will work, because when our content is on other platforms that get traffic, it does very well. We’re now partnered with several online companies, namely MSN, Rediff, Viewspaper and ViewChange.org. The partnership with Rediff is particularly promising; our first video with it got 100,000 views and loads of comments.

We also reach greater numbers of people through commissioned film projects. We’ve been hired this year by several organizations to gather stories or footage, such as: the one day on Earth project; YouTube’s Day in a Life project; and the Red Cross, for whom we produced 12 videos on hunger in rural India that they’re using in campaign events around the world. We’ve also gathered stories of climate change for our partner organization Laya; stories of development-induced displacement for Witness; stories on domestic violence for Breakthrough; and on local farming for the Gene Campaign.

Our correspondents gathered “recce” footage on caste for one of India’s major production companies, and got answers from dozens of people to the question, “Are You Happy?“ for a film project replicating Jean Rouch’s seminal 1961 movie “Chronicle of Summer.”

Are you happy? – from Jharkhand from Video Volunteers on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for our fourth and last post of the blog series, in which we’ll discuss our other activities and programs and our vision for the future.

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